Sue Hall is a founder member of the Probation Institute and Vice President of the Confederation of European Probation. She was Chief Executive of the West Yorkshire Probation Trust and Chair of the Probation Chiefs Association until 2014. So she is particularly well placed to contribute to this guest blog series setting out the top three priorities for the new Justice Secretary. You can follow @ProbInstitute and @SueHall14 on Twitter.
If I were Justice Secretary
If I were Justice Secretary, I would recognise that I faced real challenges in relation to every part of criminal justice. A series of policy decisions driven by the need to find savings and a belief in the private sector has resulted in a more complex system, one which is harder to explain and operate. A new vision for the criminal justice system is needed which is based on ethics, evidence and experience, which has public confidence and which can win back the hearts and minds of criminal justice professionals – sentencers, probation staff, prison staff, lawyers.
It is surprising that crime and justice have not formed a major plank of electoral campaigning and the public is not aware of the profound way offender supervision is being changed. As Justice Secretary I would work with key stakeholders to develop a coherent vision for an integrated and local justice system. A good starting point would be revisit the Justice Committee’s 2010 report “Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment“.
An integrated and professional probation service
A strong and fair justice system needs a probation service, which is integrated and locally accountable. ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ is still bedding in, but there are signs of fragmentation with the 8 different owners of the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) separately developing their own models for managing medium and lower risk offenders. Splitting up responsibility for offender management has created a divide between a small national probation service and the 21 CRCs leading a huge increase in bureaucracy and growing professional tensions.
The probation profession is potentially being undermined as there is no longer a requirement for CRCs to use staff with recognised probation qualifications. They no longer have to employ qualified probation officers to manage complex cases.
As Justice Secretary I would have to accept that contracts had been let with new providers, but I would want an urgent review of the models being implemented. I would want to look again at how the supervision of offenders can be properly integrated and made accountable at a local level. I would also want to ensure high and consistent professional standards across all providers backed up by a register of probation staff with approved qualifications.
Make savings through a new and more targeted role for prisons
The need for further savings remains a political imperative, but salami slicing existing services is not the answer. Let’s learn from some of our European neighbours and release resources through significantly reducing the prison population.
The current prison population stands at over 85,000. Whilst there is a short-term problem of ensuring the prisons are adequately staffed with properly trained staff to ensure a decent and humane regime, there is a crucial longer term need for a strategy which rethinks the role of prisons in our society.
We have to ask ourselves why we have an imprisonment rate of 149 per 100,000 population compared to our near neighbours in Europe – Germany (76), and the Netherlands (75). Are we so much more lawless and crime-ridden than these countries that we have to have a rate of imprisonment that is nearly twice as high? In both of these countries the prison population is falling. How has this been achieved and are there lessons for the UK?
I would want to see if evidence from other jurisdictions can help us develop a new strategy for the sentencing and management of offenders and reduce the prison population.
Evidence led policy
This brings me to my third theme – the need for policy to be based on good evidence, research and testing. The Justice Committee recently criticised the speed at which the legal aid reforms had been brought in which had militated against ‘a research-based and well structured programme of change’ and which had harmed ‘access to justice for some litigants’.
The Magistrates Association have recently warned that the new requirement for court fees of between £150-£1200 to be paid by convicted defendants did not appear to have not properly thought through and might have unforeseen negative consequences.
Unpicking or managing the consequences of poorly designed and hastily implemented policies is both wasteful and undermines the reputation of a proud criminal justice system.
As Justice Secretary I would want to build solid foundations for the future based on robust research and evidence and I would want to implement carefully to ensure public benefit as well as value for money.
The purpose of this blog series is to stimulate a debate about where our criminal justice system should be heading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the justice priorities should be. Please use the comments section below or follow the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #nextGrayling